The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution gave women the right to vote; it was approved one hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920. To highlight that important achievement, each 2020 issue of the museum newsletter will continue to feature a remarkable woman in Sunnyvale’s history.
“There is no reason why a woman’s administration shouldn’t be as efficient as a man’s!” So stated Edwina Benner during an interview with a “San Francisco Chronicle” reporter in 1924, shortly after becoming Sunnyvale’s first woman mayor. Many sources list her as the first woman mayor in all of California.
Edwina Benner was born in 1885 on a ranch near Butcher’s Corners, located between Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. Her parents, Welford and Mary Cochrane, had moved from Louisiana two years earlier to work at a vineyard owned by Welford’s brother. Edwina’s father later purchased ten acres of land bordering today’s Sunken Gardens Golf Course. A family home was built on Charles Street near Sunnyvale’s downtown.
After having graduated from Santa Clara High School in 1903, Edwina enjoyed a long career as office manager and head of payroll at Libby’s Cannery. She married Carson Benner, a Sunnyvale barber, volunteer firefighter, and catcher for the local semi-pro baseball teams. Although Edwina and Carson did not have children, she remained close to a favorite niece, Edwina McGuiness Jordan. In later years, niece Edwina remembered that politics was often the subject of discussion around her aunt’s dinner table.
Edwina’s interest in the welfare of the community prompted her to take an active role in city affairs. She was elected in 1920 to Sunnyvale’s Board of Trustees, an earlier version of the City Council, and served continuously for twenty-eight years. In 1924, Edwina became Sunnyvale’s mayor, the first woman to hold that position. She served as mayor a second time, in 1937-38. Although women mayors are quite common today, that was not the case in 1924, just four years after the 19th Amendment; a woman holding a government leadership position at the time was highly unusual.
Emil Corboline, who worked for Edwina at Libby’s Cannery and later joined her on the Sunnyvale City Council, described Edwina as follows: “She was the anchorwoman of the council and much respected in the city. When she said something, she meant it, and knew what she was talking about.” Another council member who served with Edwina remembered that she was “a very top woman: aggressive, intelligent and honorable.”
During World War II, Edwina held the position of Commissioner of Finance and Public Works for Sunnyvale, managed the local stamp ration office, and served as chairman of the Sunnyvale branch of the American Red Cross. For many years she was an active member of the Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce. Edwina donated untold hours of volunteer work to the community, including her years as a “grey lady” at Agnew State Hospital and her active participation in the Sunnyvale Business and Professional Women’s Club.
In the early 1950s, Edwina received what she described as her “greatest honor,” a Sunnyvale elementary school named for her: Edwina Benner School. Although the school was closed decades later after a shift in Sunnyvale’s population, Edwina would be proud to know that a more recent landmark was named in her honor: the Edwina Benner Plaza. Completed in 2019, “Benner Plaza” provides sixty-six affordable homes for low-income families and individuals. Edwina’s name was chosen for this project because her past leadership role in the community exemplified Sunnyvale’s current leadership in the area of affordable housing.
Edwina passed away in 1955. The flags at Sunnyvale’s City Hall were respectfully flown at half-staff in her memory.
- Rice, Bertha. The Women of Our Valley, Volume 1.1955. Ignoffo, Mary Jo. Sunnyvale: From the City of Destiny to the Heart of Silicon Valley. Cupertino: California History Center Foundation, 1994.
- Wykes, S. L. “Sunnyvale Native Earned Respect as City’s Top Official”. San Jose Mercury News. March 4, 1987.
- Zellerbach, James D. Jr. . “State’s First Feminine Mayor Still Active as Civic worker”. Newspaper title and date: Unknown. Heritage Park Museum files.
- “Affordable Workforce Housing Breaks Ground in Sunnyvale near Jobs and Transit”. MidPen-Housing.com, 6/28/20.
By Linda Kubitz